For the 2020-21 Nashville Predators, the seventh time was the charm. Winless in their first six matchups against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Predators finally defeated the division champs last weekend to clinch the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central.
Their reward is up to seven more games against Carolina, whose depth and speed and chemistry make them the clear favourite in what could be a lopsided matchup.
We all know the magic of momentum, however. After bouncing back from the league’s basement, Nashville has a healthy group intact, stellar goaltending, and a rowdy post-season atmosphere that will bring them their own home ice advantage despite being the lesser seed.
Here’s what you need to know ahead of the first-round series between Carolina and Nashville.
(5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)
Hurricanes: 53.94 CF% (4th), 56.45 GF% (4th), 93.53 SV% (2nd), 7.38 SH% (27th), 1.009 PDO (10th)
Predators: 49.86 CF% (15th), 53.61 GF% (10th), 93.57 SV% (1st), 7.73 SH% (24th), 1.013 PDO (8th)
REGULAR-SEASON TEAM STATS
Hurricanes: 25.6 PP% (2nd), 85.2 PK% (3rd), 3.13 GF/G (11th), 2.39 GA/G (4th)
Predators: 17.6 PP% (24th), 75.4 PK% (29th), 2.70 GF/G (21st), 2.75 GA/G (13th)
There’s no mystery about who these Carolina Hurricanes are: They’re fast, with a top-six that sets a pace that’s tough to match; They’re deep — on defence, yes, but now on offence, too; And they’ve got one of the hottest goalies in net right now, a Jack Adams-worthy coach behind the bench, and by all measures should be able to make quick work of the underdog Predators.
No longer a plucky bunch of jerks or a sneaky pick as a Cup contender, Carolina is one of the best teams in the league and is built like it’s finally ready to prove that in the post-season.
Nashville, on the other hand, still feels like a bit of a mystery after 56 games. The Predators have been one of the toughest teams to assess this season, with COVID setbacks early in the year dropping them down the standings and a steady stream of injuries altering the roster throughout the campaign in their efforts to rise back up. Considering many of us (guilty!) were looking to sell off their assets in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, it’s incredible to see them now in the post-season.
“This one has a little bit more meaning for the guys in the room, for management, for the coaches,” defenceman Ryan Ellis said, via the Tennessean. “Obviously, it was a strange year and we’ve had our ups and downs. It was a tough start to the year, kind of on the outside looking in. But the guys, the coaches, the management still believed and we buried our heads and went to work.”
That grind-it-out mentality will be the key for Nashville, who don’t boast the kind of skill and chemistry among their group of forwards that Carolina does, and simply cannot go goal-for-goal with the Hurricanes. They do, however, have a strong blue line that’s equal parts elite at shutting down opportunities and creating offence.
As we’ve seen many times before, special teams can make or break a series and in that regard the Hurricanes are looking particularly strong. When playing with the man advantage, Carolina converts on just over a quarter of their opportunities — they rank second only to Edmonton’s 27.4 power play percentage — and their first unit (Dougie Hamilton, Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal, Andrei Svechnikov, Vincent Trocheck) has scored a league-high 23 goals this season, per Sportlogiq. Carolina’s penalty kill is just as elite: they’ve successfully killed 85.2 per cent of penalties taken, ranking them third behind Vegas and Boston and miles above Nashville’s numbers, leaving little room for error for the Predators.
And then there’s the goaltenders. This is a strength for both clubs — Nashville and Carolina rank first and second, respectively, league-wide in team save percentage while the Hurricanes have the fourth-lowest goals against per game in the NHL. It’s clear Nashville’s crease belongs to Juuse Saros, but Carolina could have some tough decisions coming up now that veteran starter Petr Mrazek is back. Rookie Alex Nedeljkovic has been a revelation, not to mention a Calder candidate, but will he be the post-season starter?
Hurricanes X-Factor: Vincent Trocheck
Remember the Vincent Trocheck of 2017-18? He put up 75 points in 82 games with the Florida Panthers as that year’s breakout star.
Well, he’s back.
His first (mostly) complete season with the Hurricanes has been a huge success, scoring at a .91 point-per-game pace to match his career-best 2017-18 production three seasons ago. Carolina’s second-line centreman is second in points among his Hurricanes teammates (43 in 47 games) and his excellent chemistry with linemates Nino Niederreiter and Martin Necas has made the Hurricanes’ top six one of the league’s best. In addition to providing points and power-play prowess, his presence gives head coach Rod Brind’Amour the ability to keep his top line — that fun, speedy, and dangerously dynamic combo of Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen — together and thriving.
Predators X-Factor: Juuse Saros
If this is indeed the end of Pekka Rinne’s incredible career in Nashville, he wrote a beautiful ending: A 30-save shutout of the Hurricanes in the regular season finale.
The next chapter in net for Nashville is all about Juuse Saros, whose steady rise under the guidance and graciousness of Rinne over the past few years from backup to tandem to starter has him now playing some of the best hockey of his career at the best possible time.